Located just west of where Dix splits off from Vernor, in Mexicantown's second downtown, near Springwells, Los Altos is designed to cater to owner Adan Lopez's fellow immigrants from Jalisco; Los Altos ("the heights") is a region in the eastern part of that state. The menu notes that the founder is from the town of Arandas, which gave birth to tacos al pastor.
And Los Altos' tacos al pastor are out of this world: filled to the brim with succulent, mellow chunks of pork leg marinated in an adobo mixture. The management declined to reveal the recipe other than to say it uses guajillo chiles, but it's not fiery, more of a vivid, intense porkiness-plus. Judging by the looks, the chunks don't seem to be shaved off a vertical spit, as true al pastor meat is.
A taco costs $1; $1.50 if you're silly enough to ask for a flour tortilla.
The English menu is careful to advise that chopped onion and cilantro are the traditional toppings on a taco. If you insist on adding cheese, you may, but it'll cost you 50 cents. I just got back from a week in Oaxaca (where, small world, I ran into Ann Perrault, co-owner of Avalon Bakery — could churros dipped in hot chocolate be forthcoming on the bakery menu?). As always in Mexico — I believe this was my 15th trip — not once was any dish on any menu topped with cheese. If you like a baked cheese topping on everything, more power to you; just be aware what you're doing.
Los Altos will cater to a cheese request, and it may even be orange, but I recommend instead traditional dishes that show off the cooks' ability to use every last portion of an animal. Besides rib-eye (bistec tampiqueño), chorizo or pork loin (lomo), you can try cabeza (head), buche (pork maw), lengua (tongue) or tripas (beef tripe). You don't have to order them if you can't handle the texture of taste buds or intestines, but they're a sign that all else on the menu will be down-home too.
I ordered a cabeza dinner and got a big pile of shredded beef; you could imagine a diligent kitchen helper picking it off the skull after its long hours of slow cooking. The flavor is nothing exceptional, sort of a generic mild "beef," but the price is: $6 with salad, rice and beans. Choose charro rather than refried beans; they're tender whole ones cooked with cilantro and bacon, as good as any you'll find in Mexicantown.
A plato grande of four meats with salad, beans and rice is said to feed six, for $18. I believe it, because from the minute you sit down you are plied with very large portions. Your warm tortilla chips come with six garnishes: three salsas plus limes, sliced radishes and pico de gallo. One night my companion and I spent $40 including tip and took home enough food for a whole 'nother meal.
Take this as a rule: If you frequent the type of Mexican restaurant that serves soup, you will not go wrong by ordering it. I had the small $4 birria, made with marinated goat; it was a rich, tender meal in itself. Chicken soup is a luscious, velvety broth filled with generous pieces of chicken, potatoes, corn on the cob, squash and carrots. Pozole, a signature dish, is a vibrant red broth full of big pieces of pork and friendly hominy balls.
Note that these aren't soups you can eat with just a spoon. They require knife-and-fork maneuvering because the meat is still on the bone, and you have to figure out how to handle that corn and half a potato.
Los Altos' menu is long, including seafood dishes such as shrimp, tilapia, oysters and ceviche; tortas made with 13 kinds of meat or avocado; the usual chiles rellenos, burritos, enchiladas, flautas, quesadillas and even chimichangas. Bistec tampiqueña is tenderer than many of the thin steaks you find in Mexican restaurants, quite flavorful. My only two disappointments were the guacamole — thinned with something that didn't help — and the tamales, which were dry cylinders rather than moist squares.
For dessert there's flan, sopapillas or tres leches cake. The latter is quite good, though not as moist as some (if you want tres leches cake that's seeping underneath, go to La Gloria Bakery on Bagley).
Los Altos doesn't take credit cards or serve alcohol, but there's a refreshing drink called rusas that pretends to be a margarita, in a salt-rimmed goblet, made with lime juice and Squirt! Mexican-brand soft drinks, horchata and jamaica, natural juices and smoothies are also offered.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.